World Class

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors sat in while I taught an undergraduate class. Among the points he made afterward about my performance, he suggested always leading with what he termed a “road map”. This guide, he said, gave the students a chance to ready their minds for the hour ahead. It’s a lesson I’ve tried to employ whenever leading a group in instruction of any kind, and one in which Teru Clavel, author of World Class: One Mother’s Journey Halfway Around the Globe in Search of the Best Education for Her Children (Atria Books) clearly believes as well.

If the lengthy title does not tell the reader enough about where the book’s headed, Ms. Clavel goes to lengths to do so in the book itself. In the opening pages she delineates her intentions with the utmost clarity:

My goal with this book is to empower you, my readers, to take the educational philosophies and practices that work so well in China and Japan and incorporate them in your own homes and classrooms. I want you to better understand how the education system works in the United States, so that you can better advocate for your child. I want to give you the tools to give your children a truly world-class education.

Other than being a very clear road map of the next few hundred pages, Ms. Clavel also sets a lofty objective for herself: no less than getting to the bottom of K-12 academics in the US.

Books, films, and media presentations abound on this subject, of course. Every year, audiences receive another slate of TedTalks about how the system became broken and what can (nay, should) be done to fix it. Some of these focus on the education system more generally in America; others hone in on particular aspects, such as pedagogy or technology in the classroom; still others opt to dissect internationally successful education systems, such as those in Finland, or, as Ms. Clavel does, China and Japan.

Structurally, the book follows Ms. Clavel’s travels around the world, enrolling her children in schools across East Asia, Silicon Valley, and New York City. Each chapter breaks down a part of this grand experiment, both for her and her children, the royally named James, Charles, and Victoria.

This unassuming pair, Ms. Clavel argues, provide immeasurable benefits, rippling out across a student’s entire academic experience, from pre-school to dissertation.

Ms. Clavel chose to title each one of the chapters after an American television show she watched growing up in the US, ones that “rounded out my education” and “offered me a connection to what I wistfully thought of as a ‘normal life’” in this country. Apart from this brief aside, titles such as “Mission Impossible”, “Growing Pains, and “Who’s the Boss?” do nothing to impart any further elucidation of popular culture or the ways in which such programs operate in the creation, sustaining, or subversion of cultural norms, in regards to education or anything else for that matter. They do tie in loosely as a precursor to the emotional tenor of the subsequent pages, but little else.

In the midst of ensuring a positive educational experience for her children around the world, Ms. Clavel also pursued and received a masters degree from Drexel University. She writes that this academic pursuit itself spurred the thought to write this book. In conjunction with her education columns for The Japan Times, her studies and international residencies combined to produce a rather ideal scenario for someone writing about education from a global and deeply personal perspective.

One particular feature that sets aside World Class from other books on the subject comes by way of the conversational tone taken throughout. The book reads a lot like a series of blog posts that have been printed out and bound together for ease of consumption. With this in mind, the book does not intend to be a classroom textbook, but it does raise perennially vexing questions about systemic problems and nearly always tries to provide systematic answers aimed unambiguously at parents with an interest in their children’s academic success and future. On this primary point, it is quite successful.

Students who do not experience the same quality of approach at both school and home may eventually revert to the mean.

To take one particularly emblematic example, toward the end Ms. Clavel attempts a straightforward unraveling of what makes for a successful education. Though this is largely the subject of the entire book, individual chapters only tackle the question by piecemeal — anecdotes from their experience at the time appear alongside the author’s own research — chipping away at Gibraltar. In the closing chapters, however, Ms. Clavel dives in completely and endeavors to give her readers a sense of what — from a holistic standpoint — actually generates a quality and lasting educational experience in K-12.

She provides a pithy, uncomplicated answer: “A commitment to high expectations and mastery for every student.” In her opinion, there are only two fundamental features of a world-class education: high expectations and a focus on mastery. This unassuming pair, Ms. Clavel argues, provide immeasurable benefits, rippling out across a student’s entire academic experience, from pre-school to dissertation.

Further, when a school devotes itself to these symbiotic ends, they must allocate resources to appropriate areas within the organization. As a result, children in these environments tend to grow up self-motivated, widely curious, and hold a strong belief in the growth mindset (or “grit” as Angela Duckworth calls it).

It seems that an ethos drives these unique systems toward excellence, as opposed to the system itself.

As Ms. Clavel points out in several chapters, this cannot easily happen without these same guidelines being followed at home as well. If there is a third key to successful education, she offers, it is parental involvement. Children tend to mimic their parents, especially in the early years. Students who do not experience the same quality of approach at both school and home, then, may eventually revert to the mean. This argument bears out repeatedly in the book.

Ultimately, Ms. Clavel contends that a world-class education can be had by every child, regardless of the particular school or district in which the student happens to reside, even if she bemoans the socioeconomic factors that contribute to disparity. She says:

Japan, Shanghai, and Finland all get excellent results with very different systems. Japan emphasizes problem solving and being a team player. Shanghai is test driven and heavily about competition. Finland has almost no standardized testing and aims for a holistic education.

With such a variety of programs, it stands to reason that at root is something more fundamental. It seems that an ethos drives these unique systems toward excellence, as opposed to the system itself. If Ms. Clavel is to be trusted, and I think she is, we’d be far better off focusing on high expectations and mastery than new iPads or Chromebooks in every student’s backpack.

The work suffers slightly from the rare opinion couched as fact and some occasional myopia, not to mention its amalgamation of genres — part-memoir, part-travelogue, part-cultural commentary, part-self-help book. A narrower focus might have given the text a more parochial feel, but it does follow through on that original promise, to empower its readers, and for this many will be grateful indeed. The end result is a parenting manifesto and guidebook for weary travelers, actual or metaphorical, seeking some road map to the many twists and turns of childhood education.

World Class: One Mother’s Journey Halfway Around the Globe in Search of the Best Education for Her Children by Teru Clavel will be published on August 20, 2019.

Neal Tucker